The power of poisons: discourses on toxic substances in South Asian medical traditions
Barbara Gerke (Humboldt University of Berlin)
Dagmar Wujastyk
Start time:
23 July, 2014 at 14:00
Session slots:

Short abstract:

This panel analyses the rationale of 'traditional' South Asian pharmacists 'taming,' purifying, alchemically transforming, or removing what they consider 'poisonous' substances for use in medicines. What might the characterisation of a substance as 'poisonous' mean for the formulation of a medicine?

Long abstract:

With Asian medicines increasingly becoming part of the global market, safety and the role of toxicity in medicines—whose centuries-old recipes might include arsenic, aconite, or mercury—are hotly debated. Today, the toxicity of a substance is defined following an almost irrefutable set of standards, often forgetting the contexts in which toxicology developed in the nineteenth century. However, questions on how toxicity is actually understood in South Asian pharmacological traditions are just beginning to be raised by anthropologists, Indologists, Tibetologists, ethno-pharmacologists, medical historians, and others. We invite researchers to this multi-disciplinary panel to analyse the role of the 'poisonous' in 'traditional' remedies and pharmacological practices in South Asia, including Nepal, Burma and Tibetan populations across the Himalayas. The panel will bring together ethnographic, textual, historical, and contemporary research on polysemous ideas of the poisonous in South Asia's healing traditions, discussing what the characterisation of a substance as poisonous might mean for the formulation of a medicine. Is a substance's toxicity understood as a marker of its efficacy? How is the poisonous harnessed for medical use? How is it 'tamed,' purified, alchemically transformed, or even removed? We want to avoid hegemonic biomedical judgements in approaching South Asian 'purification techniques' and at the same time position our analysis within existing legal constraints of trade, use, and safety of poisonous substances in medicines, also addressing the impact of current national and international regulations on drug toxicity. Our aim is to understand and 'translate' some of these idioms of toxicity for a broad audience.